I have grown up visiting wildlife sanctuaries for annual family vacations. This always added to the familiarity and affinity I have towards the most natural of destinations. The four names that always inspired an awe in my mind were Kaziranga, Gir, Sunderbans and Ranthambore. Interestingly I didn’t visit any of these three growing up as the stars didn’t align on me travelling with my father when he went. These quickly got added to the bucket list when I started travelling on my own. I covered Kaziranga and Gir a few of years ago, Sunderbans may not happen anytime soon but Ranthambore has been on the cards for a while. We almost went late last year, but then finally this trip happened in Feb, in spite of some last minute health scares. It had been booked way in advance, so that helped.
Kaziranga is the only place to see Asian Rhino in the wild, Gir has the same privilege for Asiatic Lions and Sunderbans are a rare mangrove forest. Ranthambore , however, has no such unique trait. It does have one of the largest Tiger populations in the country and is testimony to the success of the conservation programs. But what makes it stand out most is the ease of actually being able to spot a tiger. This is attributed to some tigers having become more accustomed to humans and hence not getting scared away by hoards of camera wielding tourists. An additional factor is the vegetation being a little more sparse making it easier to see a lot further into the forest.
The drive from Delhi is quite manageable 6 hours which a fairly good road for most of the journey. The fastest route travels on NH48 beyond Neemrana before turning left into a state highway through Dhousa. It’s about 3 hours on NH48 and then another 3 on the state road. One planning tip is that there are almost no good places to eat on the state highway part of the journey, so stop on the National Highway. The town of Sawai Madhopur was quite small but welcoming with decent roads and no crazy traffic. Most of the shops seemed to specialize in organizing jeep and canter safaris. This was surprising because the bookings for us were done online and almost all trips were sold out way in advance.
The online booking platform is not the best interface but it works well through the Rajasthan Single Sign-on site. There are 10 routes for the safari and for each you can block a morning or afternoon safari. There is also the option of a 6 seater Jeep or a 20 seater Canter. My advice on how to pick – focus on the route. The highest probability of sighting is on routes 1-6, with routes 3 and 5 being better among equals. Routes 7-10 are new and hence the tigers there are still more people shy. I have heard of tiger sightings in both morning and afternoons, so maybe pick as per season – mornings will be cold Dec-Feb and afternoons will be scorching in Apr-May. Jeep vs. Canter will not affect the chances of sighting much, but in a canter you will spend a lot of time picking up people from their hotels. The hotels can actually coordinate with the jeeps and canters to coordinate pickups and drops – definitely a must use facility. Our hotel (Taj) was also nice enough to offer blankets and water bottles for Feb morning safaris. The good routes get sold out way in advance, so do book early.
On the first morning we had a Jeep on route 8. We saw a number of pug marks, heard a few monkey calls at a distance and sped around the in Jeep chansing sounds. We also made some quiet stops, just waiting patiently, but to no avail. I also realized that the drivers only cared about showing a tiger – they would not even stop for a rare bird, or any other wildlife.
The second morning we were on the much coveted route 3, but in a canter. After pickups from 2 other hotels we entered the gate of the sanctuary and maybe 3 minutes later our guide asked the driver to stop as there was a tigress behind some bushes. Some 7 jeeps and 3 other canters were around with people clicking away to glory. The tigress did step out and then proceeded to give us a 30 minute photoshoot. She walked in and out of grass cover, posed with her tongue out and at some point was joined by her two year old son, who looked quite big. They played around for a bit, the kid chased a hare and posed even more. It was a photoshoot of a lifetime.
The rest of the safari was just spent in bliss of the majestic tiger memories and we also spotted many birds, a few crocodiles and of course many deer and neelgai. It all mattered less now that the primary objective was met.
There isn’t much else to do in Ranthambore, though there is a fort that towers over the national park – but I don’t think many people go there. The hotel actually had a lot of things to do, birds to spot, bats to click, massages to enjoy and an organic garden to walk through. The decor for the place was all pictures of tigers and leopards, old photographs of the maharajas showing off their hunting trophies and a number of stuffed big cats. A live painter in the lawns also did oil reproduction of tiger photographs. The town and national park life all seem to revolve around the majestic orange and black cats and sitting by the bar late evening you can hear echos of tiger spotting stories and a smile on anyone’s face will tell you about the success (or occasional failure) in spotting a tiger.